At this time of maximum uncertainty for the economy, with the threat of coronavirus hanging over the whole world, it was a very good time to take the views of local businesses at the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce last week.
I confess that I was not a ray of sunshine at this meeting, as I can see the wider economic slowdown putting a brake on the much better conditions most Ashford businesses were expecting in 2020. We have a very resilient local economy, but if we end up with people not being able to leave their homes then it’s obvious that sectors like manufacturing and retailing will suffer badly. Not everyone can work from home.
Having said all that, there were some signs of cheer amid the nervousness. The construction industry is doing better than expected, for example. Even here, though, there is concern about the effects of the court decision to stop the Heathrow third runway. If it means the road programme is cut, what will happen to the Lower Thames Crossing? This is vital not just to relieve pressure on the Dartford Crossing, but as a provider of many jobs in Kent.
Looking at the longer term, businesses are still anxious about how they can find the apprentices they need to fill jobs in the future. We had a fascinating discussion about how to persuade schools and their pupils that passing exams was the means to the end of a successful life in the adult world, and not just an end in itself.
Another area of concern was immigration. Several businesses were wondering where workers would come from in a number of sectors, including building. 2021, when the new immigration system comes in, will be an interesting time.
For all that, we were able to share the cheerful news that tickets are now on sale for the extra daily Paris service from Ashford on the Eurostar. The new services start in May, so by then maybe the sun will be shining on all our businesses.